1923 NH Legislature… “Lots Of Fun But No Laws”


by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr._DSC2528
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

It was the year that Robert Frost’s book of poems titled “ New Hampshire” was published, the Laconia Car Company manufactured its last railway cars, and Governor Brown signed a bill giving the University of New Hampshire its name. It was also the year that the legislature was to work on tax reform in the State, but news editor and soon to become New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, Hobart Brownside Pillsbury, indicated that the tax reformers had lots of fun but produced no laws during their January to May session in the year 1923. In the January issue of The Granite Monthly magazine an article titled “A Program for Taxation ” by Raymond B. Stevens declared that “The most important and difficult question before the coming legislature is the question of taxation.” He maintained that New Hampshire’s “…system of taxation is antiquated, and entirely inadequate for modern conditions.”

The Democrats, who controlled the House of Representatives, through its State committee chairman, Robert Jackson of Concord, declared that their branch of the legislature had been one of the most successful in the history of the State. The Republicans, who controlled the Senate, felt that they should be congratulated for keeping what they considered to be the radical ideas of the Democrats from becoming law. Hobart Pillsbury wrote on April 21st that since New Year’s the Legislature had “… accomplished a good deal, although no bill has been passed yet that amounts to anything. None will be passed, no matter how long the session lasts. This, however, is satisfactory to all concerned.”
Pillsbury obviously believed that legislators could accomplish as much sometimes by defeating proposed legislation rather than passing it, and could have fun doing it. So maybe we can have fun pondering what the tax reformers in the House of Representatives proposed that the opposition Senators rejected. The majority leader in the Senate was Republican Leon D. Ripley and the Democrat Ovide J. Coulombe of Berlin was the minority leader. The House passed a bill to eliminate the poll tax for women, but the Senate defeated the bill on party lines, 13 to 8, leading Pillsbury to observe that the action meant “…that the fair sex will not be prohibited from enjoying the pleasure of equality with men in paying a poll tax.” The poll tax had to be paid to allow a person to vote. Another House supported bill was to impose a one cent tax on gasoline along with a bill to establish a highway fund into which would be deposited all fees and taxes related to automobiles. Another tax bill passed by the representatives, but not by the senators, involved inheritances. This was a flat rate tax with heirs divided into three classes with different rates applied. The first class was direct heirs with a two percent tax levied upon them. The second class was referred to as collateral heirs, like brothers or sisters, who were to be taxed at six per cent, and the third class was to be other collateral heirs, who would be assessed a ten per cent tax. An additional inheritance tax bill was passed which made the state a collateral heir, which Pillsbury described as “…sort of a second cousin, twice removed…” that would be entitled to a certain percentage of estates above $50,000. Taxes on savings bank deposits were cut by one-third in an effort to encourage the New Hampshire banks to increase their dividends which were lower than those in Massachusetts which, it was claimed, held fifty million dollars of money belonging to New Hampshire residents.
In 1923 if you owned an automobile you were thought to be rich, so legislators looked for ways to raise money through fees and taxes on the owners and to pass regulations to control the use of vehicles. Efforts were made to pass a bill introducing compulsory insurance on automobiles. The House of Representatives passed a bill placing mandatory jail sentences on drunken drivers. No fines were to be assessed and no jail sentences could be suspended. The first conviction for the drunken driver was a sixty day jail sentence and the repeat offender would be sent to the state prison for six months and lose their driver’s license for one to three years. Hobart Pillsbury’s comment about this proposed law was that “It was argued that if this bill could pass there would be no need of compulsory insurance, because an automobile is dangerous only when there is gasoline in the car and whiskey in the driver.”
As the legislators of New Hampshire adjourned their 1923 session in May, the first of the politicians who were preparing to run for President of the United States in the nation’s first primary was beginning his campaign. His name was David S. Beach and he was from Connecticut. Mr. Beach seemed to think that he could save the country and the world from financial disaster and spread the wealth around, but he also advocated abolishing state governments which would mean that there would be no need for state governors or legislators. Mr. Pillsbury insisted that such a candidate would not find support in a state like New Hampshire where “All the inhabitants … outside of the state prison, and some of them inside, hope someday to sit in the Legislature unless they have already done so…”.
Maybe Mr. Anderson, who felt that there was unequal taxation and large amounts of wealth that escaped taxation, had a more favorable response to Mr. Beach’s plan to share more of the wealth of the nations between individuals.
One victory for the Democrats in 1923 was the appointment of one of their own, Rev. Ora W. Craig as the state commissioner of law enforcement, which, according to Mr. Pillsbury, meant that he was the commissioner of prohibition. He had several deputies who secretly worked under him, and the common opinion was “When a stranger invades a quiet New Hampshire community , he is assumed to be a prohibition deputy until proven otherwise.”

Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. lives in New Hampton.